From 1769 to 1823, Spain built missions all along the California coast in their conquest to convert the indigenous people to Christianity and as strongholds for their newly claimed territories. Twenty-one Spanish missions can be found along the ‘King’s Highway’ in California, which is today Highway 101. California Missions are the oldest structures in state and feature early churches, cemeteries, bell towers, garden courtyards, living quarters and more. They once served as trade centers for food, grain, hides, wine and more. Today, they are tourist attractions and some are still active churches.
The majority of the missions can be found on the Central Coast of California. Some are easily accessible in touristy towns like Carmel, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara while others including the San Antonio, San Miguel and La Purisima Missions are in more remote regions. San Juan Bautista Mission is one of the largest and was known as the ‘Mission of Music’. It was also prominently featured in the Hitchcock classic, Vertigo. The Carmel Mission was known as the ‘Crown Jewel of the Missions’ for its beautiful grounds and location at the mouth of the Carmel River. It is also the burial place of Padre Junipero Serra who founded most of the California Missions. The impressive Santa Barbara Mission was known as the ‘Queen of the Missions’ for its size and beauty. The Santa Inez Mission is located just north of the Gaviota pass near Solvang and was known as the ‘Mission of the Passes’.
The San Francisco region houses 5 California Missions. The San Francisco Solano Mission is situated in Sonoma wine country and was the last to be built in the state. It harbors an infamous past of a Padre who was especially cruel to the natives. The Dolores Mission is located near downtown San Francisco and barely survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Other Bay Area missions can be found in San Rafael, San Jose and Santa Clara.
There are 5 missions in Southern California that are spread out between Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties. San Diego has the distinction of having not only the first California Mission, but the largest as well. The San Luis Rey Mission is located in Oceanside and was known as the ‘King of the Missions’ for its grand size. The San Juan Capistrano Mission in Orange County is renowned for the swallows that return every year around March 19th. Two Missions reside on the outskirts of Los Angeles including the San Gabriel Mission which was known as the ‘Pride of the Missions’ for its once productive trade of crops, hides and wine.
All California Missions are visitor friendly. Many of them are still active churches and open to the public with most having museums and gift shops. All are very picturesque with fountains, grottos, gardens, mission bells and elaborate churches. They’ve been tested to the extreme by earthquakes and fires over the decades, sometimes leaving their mostly adobe structures in ruins. Some retain their ruinous appearance while others have been restored to their original glory. Every mission is unique in its design and history. Entry fees are minimal for such splendid beauty and historic significance.